Ten years of marriage goes by in a flash! But how do you celebrate such a milestone? I have been wanting to go to Istanbul for a while. It’s extremely touristy, but I was enamoured by the thoughts of it being a city where you could see mosques, churches and synagogues all right by each other and of it once having been the “center of the world”.
So, when K consented to doing Istanbul for our 10 year anniversary, I couldn’t have been more excited. My parents offered to come to Hong Kong to watch E with our nanny, so K and I booked a week-long trip to Istanbul and Bodrum, an Aegean seaside city in Turkey, to get a good mix of city and beach.
I’ve cut this post into two sections because of how much we did. Please see below for everything we did in Istanbul, and click here for our trip to Bodrum.
The Turkish Lira. While you can get away with a credit card at all of the “established” places, smaller shops, public transportation and a lot of cabs only take cash, so make sure to have some with you.
Getting around Istanbul:
- Getting to/from the airport: The new Istanbul airport, IST, opened in April, 2019. It’s really nice but it’s a little far from the city (40-50 km). Public transportation, aside from a bus that could take around 2 hours to get to the city in traffic, doesn’t yet exist so ask your hotel about a shuttle or a private car. We used a car company that K’s company uses, but there are loads of options online as well, e.g., Viator. One way with the private car was around $53 USD/person.
- Accessibility: Because of the terrain and the general “oldness” of the city, here are a few things to be cautious of for those with knee issues, in wheelchairs, and/or with strollers.
- Istanbul has its fair share of slopes and stairs in certain areas especially in Karakoy (an area that we loved) and Galata, so tread carefully.
- There are several wobbly cobblestone areas in the old town, Sultanahment, which can make some paths troublesome.
- If you opt for public transportation, the tram is above ground which makes it easy to get to, but some of the train stops are underground and may not be easily accessible.
- Trains and trams: Our hotel didn’t mention how useful they are, which I found strange, but we were introduced to them by our tour guide (who you will hear more about below) and were so thankful because cabs are really tough to find in the late afternoon/early evenings. You can opt for single ride passes but I suggest getting the Istanbul Kart if you’re planning on using public transportation often.
- Ferries: They’re smooth and scenic when going to from Karakoy or Eminonu to Kadikoy (the Asian side) but also when going from Eminonu to Karakoy. The latter is a super short trip, but anything is better than a car during rush hour.
- Buses: I can’t comment on them because we didn’t take them, but there are a lot. If you choose to try one, research them first so you know where you’re going and avoid them during rush hour.
- Cabs: Easy to find outside of rush hour and affordable. But make sure you have cash, and your destination written with you in Turkish in case your driver doesn’t understand English (Google maps helps too). And, be aware that some of the drivers might try to trick you so make sure they have their meter on – you can often see it in red on their rearview mirror. Again, traffic can be terrible. So, if you’re trying to get somewhere by a certain time, take another mode of transport.
- Ubers: They’re are available in Istanbul, but we used them as a last resort because it was oddly difficult to meet them at times and they would also cancel at random.
Where we stayed:
Since it was our 10-year anniversary, we wanted to stay somewhere nice. If you’ve read my previous travel posts (and if you haven’t, please do!), we tend to stick to Marriott options due to points that we’ve accrued thanks to K’s work travel, but there are loads of other options as well, including Airbnb.
For Istanbul we chose the Ritz Carlton. This was our first time staying at a Ritz Carlton property and we absolutely loved it. The building and views are stunning, breakfasts tasty, service quick and efficient, and they’re one of those hotels that are great for celebrations. They filled our room with red and white balloons that reminded me of how K proposed (if you’re interested in that story I’d be happy to share it), rose petals and topped it off with a delicious chocolate mousse cake that we couldn’t finish, but happily tried. There’s also a gorgeous outdoor infinity pool that they don’t really advertise but it provides beautiful views of Istanbul’s Asian side and is definitely worth a few hours of chill time.
Book a private tour guide:
We highly recommend booking a private tour guide. You can tour the major monuments with an audio guide, but our experience wouldn’t have been as amazing as it was without our guide Halley. Without her, we could have survived off of suggestions provided by the hotel and found online, but we would not have gotten as deep as we did into the history and would have certainly missed Kadikoy and Balat.
Halley works for the Barefoot Plus Travel agency that we were referred to by someone at K’s Istanbul office, but we were fortunate to have gotten her specifically. The cost came to around $137 USD/person for a full day and $76 USD/person for half a day (we did a day and a half with her) and it covered fees for everything except for food and drink. I strongly recommend booking her directly!
Spa: Ayasofya Hammam – If you’re not familiar with a traditional Turkish hammam and are OK to get a head-to-toe scrub down by someone you have never met, you should definitely give it a try, and this is by far the best place to go to in Istanbul. Women and men are separated for their treatments, but regardless of what side you’re on, be ready to be lathered up with everyone else there. I highly recommend getting the clay body mask in addition to your hammam treatment; it was all super relaxing and a perfect way to start the trip.
- Ancient Hippodrome – It was cool to hear about the history of it while standing there
- Blue Mosque – Unfortunately, a lot of it was under construction when we went but it was still worth it
- Hagia Sophia – Same as above, but you can see a lot more and meet the sweet Gli (resident cat) who lives there!
- Topkapi Palace – A beautiful place with even more beautiful views
- Basilica Cistern – Kinda eerie, but cool to see. You can easily do a quick loop.
- St. George Cathedral – I’m intrigued by all things religious so I think it’s worth peeking into if you’re in Balat
- Galata Tower – Worth seeing at night because it’s nicely lit, but not worth standing in line for a view.
- Dolmabahce Palace – It was stunning to see and easy to do with an audio tour, but unfortunately no photography is allowed inside
- Kamondo Stairs – <insert shrug emoji>
- Eminonu/Sultanahmet – All the major monuments are located here so you can’t miss it
- Taksim Square – Too crowded for our taste so only walked through it
- Karakoy/Galata/Sishane – Three areas all right next to each other, but our favorite was Karakoy. Despite the “easy-to-trip-over” cobblestone streets, we loved the little book shops, cafes, restaurants and bars and the seemingly relaxed vibe of the neighborhood. It was a nice break from the touristy areas of Istanbul.
- Kadikoy – On the Asian side of Istanbul. Halley (our tour guide) graciously took us there on her way back home to show a local side of Istanbul. It was crowded due to a football match that was about to be underway, but felt a lot like Europe. We would have definitely spent more time there if we had the chance.
- Balat – Super cute and picturesque area of Istanbul (aka Instagram-worthy)
Other things we did:
- Hodjapasha Culture Centre – As a dancer, I felt it necessary to watch Dervish dance. But if you may not be into it, don’t go because you might just fall asleep as a lot of folks did in the audience (including K). Watching people spin for 5-10 minutes at a time is apparently very relaxing. And, since it’s a spiritual dance, photography is not allowed.
- Bosphorus Cruise – Use the cruise as a way to get to different monuments (there are options for these types of tours), or do a ferry from Eminonu or Karakoy to Kadikoy. The basic cruise is nice but pointless as you can’t hear what the announcer is saying about the monuments you pass unless you’re sitting indoors in the upper deck.
- 1200 Derece in Balat (you’ll need Google translate for the page) – It’s a glass workshop studio that was a total random find for us, but I was intrigued and had Halley book a class for us. If you’re for learning how to make glass beads, a skill that should be brought up at any interview, take a class! It was one of our faves of the trip.
Where to eat / go out at night:
There are three drinks you must try: Turkish coffee – I had about 5 a day (they’re espresso sized), with medium sugar because it’s pretty strong, Turkish tea, and raki – a clear liquor that turns white when mixed with water and tastes like anise. You can get Turkish coffee and tea at practically anytime and anywhere, but raki might only be imbibed during dinner.
Istanbul is well known for kebabs, but the mezze, seafood, baklava, Turkish ice cream, and lokum (Turkish delights) are equally delicious. We got breakfast at the hotel, and the prices for dinner varied across the board, but lunch ranged from $10-25 USD/person depending on whether you ate at a quick place or a nicer, sit-down place. Here are my top recommendations:
- Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi – A hole-in-the-wall, but our fave kebab spot.
- Sur Balik in Cihangir – Amazing seafood and baklava!
- Hamdi Restaurant in Eminonu – Great mezze, lahmacun, and an amazing view of the Eminonu/Karakoy harbor
- Paul’s Lasagne – We weren’t looking for Italian food, but we had to try it due to how much the locals love it and I was blown away. It was the best lasagne I think I’ve ever had! I had the classic style but there are loads of options to try.
- Mitis Cafe – They serve all kinds of manti (Turkish dumplings); SO good
Other options include:
- Katkatbalat Cafe & Restaurant – We stuffed our face with their spinach and feta gozleme
- Velvet Cafe – A coffee shop in Balat with great Turkish helva/halva
- Guney Restaurant – A great place for kebab and mezze while you people watch in front of the Galata Tower
- Moretenders’ Cocktail Crib – A popular mixology bar
- Meshur Dondurmaci Ali Usta – Super lightweight ice cream in Kadikoy
And the two we didn’t enjoy:
- Nars Brasserie
- Mikla – A high-end dinner spot that we booked to celebrate Kumar’s birthday (4 days before our anniversary), but we sadly found it was overrated
Rooftops are a must do in Istanbul, especially around sunset because the views are stunning. Our recommendations include:
- 5 Kat – A great view of the Bosphorus
- Monkey Bar – The best place for a view of the Golden Horn especially during sunset. Most rooftops face the Bosphorus
- A’Ya Terrace at the Four Seasons – A great view of the Hagia Sophia
Aside from the rooftops and Moretenders’, we didn’t get deep into the nightlife because we were so exhausted from our days and jetlagged, but they have a pretty big club scene that could be worth exploring if you’re still awake.
Where to shop:
- Istiklal Street – Lined with loads of international and high street fashion shops, as well as cafes and restaurants, but also super crowded.
- Grand Bazaar – If you’ve been to a European or Asian market, I’d say this is similar and nothing different aside from the architecture which was cool
- Misir Carsisi (Spice Bazaar) – Another indoor market, but with spices (shocking)
- Mado – A dessert bakery chain with tasty baklava and other treats
- Kosem Pastanesi – Another amazing baklava spot and bakery
- When to go: Turkey has more of a desert feel – it can get really hot during the day but fairly chilly at night in a single day, so, I think the best times to go to Turkey are spring and fall. We went at the start of September, so it was still super hot under the sun during the day, but cooled down dramatically at night. From what we found out from Halley, very few visit Turkey in the winter.
- What to pack: Pack according to the weather keeping in mind that even if it’s hot during the day, it gets cooler at night. If going during the times I suggested or during summer, definitely take sunblock as well. And when it comes to shoes, there could be a lot of walking on uneven terrain, so unless you’re cabbing directly to and from a venue, I suggest only packing shoes that you’re comfortable walking in.
- Language: English isn’t spoken commonly among the current adult population, but, we heard from our tour guide that it’s changing rapidly thanks to social media and school. So carry a card from your hotel with you, or have the hotel write the destination for you in Turkish so that you can show a cab driver if needed. Google Translator also works. People will still try to help you if they can, but, misinterpretation can occur so if you’re exploring uncommon destinations, be sure to double check your path.
- CATS: For all you cat lovers, Istanbul is the place to be because there are cats EVERYWHERE and they’re all generally well cared for by the public. If you are not a cat lover, please steer clear of them and do not provoke or cause harm to them because you will get berated by locals for doing so, and really that’s just plain mean.
A city trodden with more footsteps than I could ever imagine, it was no surprise that Istanbul was as touristy as I suspected it would be, but the trip was amazing. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, i.e., a picturesque view of monuments from the three major western religions all side-by-side, but they were all indeed in one city, one country, all being visited by religious and non-religious folk alike, and the pictures, city life, and views were not like any we had seen before.
Personally, I could have done without the cigarette smoking everywhere, even indoors, but the food was delicious, the people were nice and as helpful as they could be, and it was generally just a really energizing city to see and be in. And thanks to Halley and other people we spoke to, we were able to explore some of the local scene and loved it.
If E had been with us, we could have done another few days in Turkey. Another two perhaps in Istanbul, one in Bodrum and perhaps another two elsewhere? I don’t think we’re done with you yet Turkey!
Edited by: Betty Ho